Inside the jury room
By SUE CARLTON, THOMAS FRENCH
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 30, 2000
The foreman wanted to know where everyone stood. To what degree, if any, was Valessa Robinson guilty in the murder of her mother?
Each juror cast an initial vote on a scrap of paper. Tallying the results, the foreman saw they were divided every possible way.
They had a long way to go.
* * *
This morning, Valessa will be sentenced in a Tampa courtroom for her role in the stabbing death of her mother, Vicki Robinson.
A month after the verdict, most of the jurors who decided the case of State of Florida vs. Valessa Lyn Robinson still do not want to discuss what happened inside the jury room. When contacted by reporters, the majority closed their doors or let answering machines pick up.
Adding to the controversy, Valessa's personal journals -- sealed throughout the trial -- were made public three days after the verdict. The journals covered Valessa's life from age 11 until a few weeks before the murder, and revealed a much darker version of the prim defendant who had sat in court every day.
Four jurors eventually agreed to speak to the St. Petersburg Times. They discussed how difficult -- even painful -- their 2 1/2 days of deliberations had been. Again and again, they pointed out that they did not have the luxury of casually forming an opinion about the case.
"The masses had their minds made up before they considered the law," said Ray Straub, a 31-year-old copywriter who heard the case from the back row of the jury box. "These armchair lawyers didn't get 50 pages of information explaining the laws and what criteria had to be met."
"We did the best we could," said D.Z. Monk, a 44-year-old homemaker. The jurors weren't standing in judgment of Valessa's life, Monk said. They were only deciding the charges against her.
"We could not consider her life leading up to that one day," Monk said.
Weeks after the verdict, the strain was still evident in her voice.
"When you take someone's life in your hands and hold it for a while, oh God," Monk said, "it's terrible. Especially when it comes to a young person."
* * *
Bailiffs had brought all the evidence into the jury room, stacking it on the floor or against the wall. There was the pitchfork and shovel used to start a grave for Vicki Robinson. There were the bloody towels used to mop up the murder scene. There was the taped statement Valessa gave detectives after she was taken into custody in Texas.
First, the jurors picked a foreman. Jerry Siering was a 59-year-old self-employed salesman originally from the Bronx. Observant, focused, congenial, Siering was a natural for the job.
After the initial vote was taken -- with the 12 jurors voting every possible way on Valessa's guilt -- the real deliberations started.
Siering sat at the head of the table. Each juror had a thick booklet of instructions that explained the law relevant to the charges. Reading through the instructions, the jury struggled with a crucial issue that would tangle them for the next two days: the principal question.
During the trial, the prosecution had argued that even if Valessa did not stab her mother, she still instigated the crime and was therefore guilty of first-degree murder. The prosecutors had relied on the testimony of Jon Whispel, who said Valessa had suggested killing her mother and then held her down while Adam Davis injected bleach into her neck. The jury instructions put it this way:
If the defendant helped another person or persons commit a crime, the defendant is a principal and must be treated as if he had done all the things the other person or persons did if
1. the defendant had a conscious intent that the criminal act be done and
2. the defendant did some act or said some word which was intended to and which did incite, cause, encourage, assist or advise the other person or persons to actually commit the crime.
To be a principal, the defendant does not have to be present when the crime was committed.
For at least one of the jurors, the instruction wasn't enough. Five hours into deliberations, a note was sent to the judge.
Calling the jurors into the courtroom, Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett declined to give a "yes" or "no" answer. Instead, he re-read the principal instruction and sent them back to the jury room.
Ray Straub studied the instruction, debating whether it applied to Valessa. Even if he and the other jurors believed Jon Whispel's testimony that Valessa had held her mother down, did that necessarily mean she wanted to kill her? What if Valessa had never intended for Adam Davis to inject Vicki with the bleach or stab her?
Straub was frustrated because he had not been able to take notes during the trial. When court ended each day, he would sit in his car in a parking garage near the courthouse and furiously scribble out his recollections. At home, he would download his memory of each day's testimony onto his computer. The exercise helped, but sitting in the jury room, he wanted more hard data to refer to.
The first day's deliberations ended at 7 p.m. The jury learned it would be sequestered at the Crowne Plaza Hotel near WestShore Plaza. One juror, a single mother, scrambled to find child care for her young son. Others called family members and asked them to bring fresh clothes and toothbrushes. At the hotel, telephones, TVs and radios were removed from the rooms, and cell phones were confiscated. Several deputies stood guard in the hallway.
Monk, wearied after eight days in court, filled the bathtub and soaked. Through a bathroom window, she watched airplanes taking off from Tampa International Airport.
The next morning, she and the others were back in the jury room.
* * *
For two weeks, Valessa's lead attorney, Dee Ann Athan, had been working at the edge of exhaustion.
Now that the jury was out, she allowed herself to relax a little. Sitting in the lobby of the public defender's office, with a rosary wrapped around her fingers, she spoke at length about Valessa, about Vicki, whatever popped into her mind.
"For giving you such a great story."
The reporter looked at her, confused. What did she mean? How had she "given" anyone this story? Hadn't the case begun with the death of Vicki Robinson?
Just kidding, Athan said.
She talked about how she saw herself as Valessa's surrogate mother, someone who could hold and comfort her. Athan said she had great empathy for Vicki, but thought she had allowed Valessa too much leeway, especially in her relationship with Davis and Whispel.
"These men would not have been in my house," Athan said.
Athan said she had seen firsthand how Valessa reacted to strict boundaries. One day, Valessa asked if she could change her hairstyle and wear it straight in the courtroom. Athan told her no. There was no negotiation, no back and forth. Athan had made her decision and wasn't budging.
"She responds to that," Athan said.
* * *
Over and over, the jurors listened to Valessa's taped statement.
I remember I had stabbed her in the throat, and it had released a lot of blood. And she wasn't dead yet, and so I stabbed her again twice in her back.
The voice was thin and halting in the silence of the jury room.
And then I couldn't handle all the blood and everything, and I panicked, and I went in my room, and I had Jon and Adam clean up the blood, and we took my mom's body and ...
The jury simply didn't believe the confession. No one could picture that Valessa -- 115 pounds -- could subdue and stab her mother while two young men waited in another room.
D.Z. Monk doubted Valessa was even in the kitchen when Vicki Robinson was murdered. "If anyone held down the mother, it was Jon, not Valessa," Monk would later say. "I think she was so messed up on drugs, she was not even in the room. She does not sound like someone who did it. Adam is the one I would like to hear from. He was the one who was the ringleader."
The jurors knew Adam was on death row for killing Vicki. They knew Whispel had agreed to testify against Valessa to save himself. From Valessa, they had only silence.
Juror Renata Smith wanted concrete evidence. The state's case, she would later say, was built on "he said, she said."
Neither of the murder weapons -- the knife and the syringe -- was found, Ray Straub pointed out.
Whispel held little credibility with the jury. Monk, who watched her share of murder and suspense movies, thought Whispel had been coached to say what the prosecution wanted him to say.
Some jurors also discounted Valessa's confession to a Texas juvenile detention officer. There again, they felt, Valessa was just taking the rap for Davis and Whispel.
And what about the witness who testified that weeks before the murder, Valessa had mentioned she wanted to kill her mom and have Davis help her?
Hearsay, Monk decided.
If the jurors didn't believe the state's best witnesses, what was left?
They denied Valessa's youthful appearance influenced their deliberations. "I don't think anyone on the jury made any decision based on her clothes," Straub said later. "How could we?"
Still, the only version of Valessa they could consider was the one presented in the courtroom.
"She looked like a little girl," said Monk.
By 5 p.m. on the second day of deliberations, Siering, the foreman, needed some air. He was perspiring and feeling lightheaded. The night before, the hotel had undercooked his meal and he went to bed without dinner. Another juror gave him a peppermint to bring up his sugar. Siering scribbled a note for the judge.
Judge, we are currently deadlocked and the foreman feels claustrophobic and needs to get out of the room for a while.
The judge sent the jury back to the hotel for another night.
* * *
The next day was Good Friday. First thing that morning, they were led into the jury box. Judge Padgett read them what is known as the Allen Charge, a way to encourage a deadlocked jury to keep deliberating.
Padgett did something else. He wanted to return to the principal question the jurors had asked two days earlier.
Before, he had declined to answer the question. Now, he would.
Yes, Padgett told the jury, if a person is determined to be a principal in a crime, then that person is guilty of the crime.
Two jurors were not convinced Valessa was a principal. One juror in particular was a holdout who wanted to keep analyzing the case.
More votes were taken. Still, there was no unanimity.
None of them knew the range of sentences Valessa faced if convicted. "We didn't know what the penalties for any of these things were," said Straub. "We did know she couldn't get the death penalty."
Each juror viewed Valessa differently. Monk saw a 15-year-old who had fallen for an older, dangerous man.
"That little girl was in love with some older guy," Monk would later say. "She was taking the rap. She thought it was cool."
Siering was convinced Valessa was guilty of first-degree murder, and so were others. But there were some who would not accept such a verdict.
At 10:30 that morning, the jury sent out another note:
We request transcripts of any and all court records, testimony and other usable evidence, specifically relating to whether or not Valessa held her mother down, or pinned or restrained her, in any way, during the course of the alleged murder.
The judge brought the jurors back into the courtroom and told them they had everything they needed to reach a verdict.
They were running out of options. They could tell the judge they were permanently deadlocked, which would mean a mistrial. Or they could settle on a verdict all 12 of them could live with.
At this point they had been stuck inside the jury room almost 18 hours. Now they moved quickly.
Just after noon, the foreman called for another vote. They started with first degree. Still not enough votes.
They tried second. Still not enough.
"Third degree," Siering announced.
Twelve hands went up.
"Sadly," Siering would later say, "it met the criteria."
* * *
When the verdict was announced, Vicki's 75-year-old mother stared down at a pink rose she held. Behind her, a wall of Vicki's friends collapsed. Vicki's boyfriend, Jim Englert, clenched his jaw.
Valessa's father, Chuck Robinson, blinked, as if he was trying to absorb the jury's decision.
The choice seemed like a compromise. On the verdict form, third degree was in the middle -- below first and second degree, above manslaughter and not guilty. Just before the jury began deliberating, the judge had given a legal definition of each option. Third-degree murder was a death that occurred while someone was commiting a less serious felony, such as aggravated battery. It did not need to be premeditated.
The prosecutors looked grim as they gathered their files. At the defense table, Athan pressed her forehead to Valessa's.
A few minutes later, as Valessa was being led inside a van to return to jail, Athan tried to shield her from a TV cameraman.
"No comment!" she yelled, swiping at the camera, the rosary wrapped in her hand.
* * *
Two weeks after the trial, Theresa Goscinski drove to the county jail.
Vicki Robinson had been one of her best friends. She had confided in Goscinski during her struggles with Valessa.
In her heart, Goscinski believed Valessa had some part in her mother's murder. She also felt that Vicki would not have wanted her to turn her back on Valessa.
At the jail, guards buzzed her through clanging metal doors and sent her wandering in a maze of corridors to a visiting booth. Athan was there, but Goscinski didn't mind. She was a little nervous.
When Valessa sat down on the other side of the Plexiglas, Goscinski was struck by how well she looked. Was it because the drugs were gone? Valessa's eyes were clear, and when she spoke, she was almost bubbly. Goscinski thought she could see some of Vicki's spirit.
She told Valessa she looked good. She said she liked the outfits Valessa had worn to court -- except for those little-girl Mary Jane shoes.
"You didn't like the shoes?" Valessa said. Goscinski couldn't tell if she was kidding.
They talked awhile. Valessa said she had been listening to a Christian radio station. She mentioned hearing Point of Grace, the group that sang her mother's favorite song, The Great Divide.
A memory came to Goscinski. She was riding in a car with Vicki and Valessa. Point of Grace was on the radio. Vicki cranked up the volume, laughing. She was teasing Valessa, telling her she should listen to this. Valessa was rolling her eyes.
In that moment, they had been any mother, any daughter.
* * *
Once the verdict was in, the lawyers began preparing for the next battle:
The decision rested with Padgett, the silver-haired judge who presided over the trial.
After more than two decades on the bench, Padgett wasn't much for pretense. With juries, he often dropped the fancy legalese and spoke plainly in a gravelly Southern voice. With lawyers, he usually stayed even-tempered. Once, when an attorney was repeatedly defying a ruling, Padgett fixed him with a look.
"Why," the judge asked evenly, "are you twisting the tiger's tail?"
Often, when a defendant stood before him at sentencing and spoke, Padgett would fold his hands and listen quietly. He would not interrupt.
In the end, though, he had a reputation for imposing tough sentences.
During Valessa's trial, it seemed everyone had seen Padgett on the news. His barber wanted to talk about the case. So did the cashier at his local U-Save.
Padgett could only agree that what happened was indeed a tragedy. Anything else he might think or feel about the case would have to wait until sentencing day.
Had Valessa been convicted of first-degree murder, life in prison would be the only possible punishment. But third-degree murder gave the judge options.
Prosecutors used a complicated scoresheet to tally the number of years Valessa could face. The scoresheet considered factors such as how badly a victim was injured, whether the defendant had a criminal record or if a gun was used.
The bottom line for Valessa: 11 to 18 years in prison.
She would get credit for the nearly two years she had already spent in the county jail. Even with a maximum sentence, she would be free in her early 30s, young enough to still have children.
On the other side of the courthouse, Dee Ann Athan was doing her own math.
Valessa, she believed, should be treated as a juvenile. She needed drug treatment and therapy. She might be 17 now, but her life had stopped two years ago when she was charged with her mother's murder and put in jail.
"She's kind of almost stuck in June of 1998," Athan said.
After the trial, the lawyer received a Hallmark greeting card in the mail. As she prepared for the sentencing, she kept the card on her desk as a reminder of the hostility toward her client's verdict.
Inside the card, someone had written anonymously:
* * *
Valessa was getting mail, too. In the weeks before the sentencing, two greeting cards arrived for her at the jail.
Both were unsigned.
Both wished her a Happy Mother's Day.
* * *
Valessa Robinson will be sentenced this morning.
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